Hillsboro Beach, FL (November 4, 1999) -- "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" has always been the guiding light for those empowered to turn on the lights for customers seeking guidance. A positive experience by a customer in need builds loyalty essential to a company's brand image, stock price, and continued success and growth.

If a business desires to capture a sustainable advantage over competitors, its visionary leadership's crystal ball would see that pleasing customers is a means of ensuring a high degree of repeat usage of its product or service. Excellent customer service, therefore, is a hallmark of rule-breaking companies.

The days when the "customer is always right" has too often been replaced today with an attitude that the "customer is always annoying." If you haven't been charmed by such an experience lately, engage in commerce with a public utility. Just yesterday, BellSouth sent me literature telling me its "goal is to provide you with reliable service, delivered by our knowledgeable, courteous people." Ironically, the very same day, its knowledgeable, courteous technician didn't show up in the four-hour allocated time slot; then one of its knowledgeable, courteous customer service reps promised he'd call back, but didn't; and to winningly complete my customer experience, another such knowledgeable, courteous colleague hung up on me. To paraphrase Thomas Paine, BellSouth is a company that "tries men's souls." The utility is now in my Back Breaker portfolio.

This experience has given me a greater appreciation of companies that make customer service a top priority. If I had a choice, I would never, ever use the BellSouths of the world. But when there's no competition, what's a gal to do?

Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) and eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) have plenty of competitors consistently encroaching on their territory; but what distinguishes these Rule Breakers as companies is their almost obsessive commitment to providing top quality customer service. This creates an environment where users continually want to return and do business. Companies that provide lip service are a dime a dozen. I prefer to spend my dimes with companies that provide customer service. That's a commitment that comes from the top and filters down through all layers of staff.

A recent survey by Gomez Advisors placed both at the top of their respective lists in "Relationship Services," which is defined as a firm's building of "electronic relationships through personalization, through enabling customers to make service requests and inquiries online, and through offering programs and perks that build customer loyalty and a sense of community." These are the companies whose business models will propel them into continuously winning positions in the future.

Even so, Amazon dropped 4.18% today, as a report issued by a site called SSInvestor came out with a loud and resounding SELL rating. Its report cites Amazon's "obsessive focus" on the customer, and includes such juicy tidbits as Opinion Research Corp.'s nationwide survey revealing that 117.8 million adults, or 60 percent of the adult U.S. population, recognize the Amazon.com brand, and that repeat customer orders represented over 72% of all orders in the 3rd quarter. Unfortunately, this wasn't enough good news to quell their fears that Amazon might never realize a profit.

Anyone who's been around America Online (NYSE: AOL) since the early days will notice a radical improvement in its customer service. It has clearly spent lots of money in upgrading its efforts to assist users in solving problems. A visit to AOL's "Help" area and a tad of patience gives a lost soul just about all the info necessary. If that fails, there is live online tech support which is very effective. Unfortunately, phone help is still difficult to access, although the help line played a very satisfying rendition of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 before a disembodied voice directed me to call back later. Poor Mozart� being relegated to audio filler on corporate phone lines.

Companies with the vision to treat customers with respect and break the rules of customer neglect will have the best chances of being the winners in the new millennium. Which is one of the reasons we're invested in them.

Fool on!

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